Monday, November 28, 2011

For Amber Waves of... Stone

This post picks up where last Monday's post left off. My dear friend and excellent photographer TLR and I had visited Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, then driven back to Salt Lake City, remember? In Salt Lake City, we picked up a third friend, codename: Perfect Gentleman. Then the three of us drove south.

In the southwest corner of Utah sits beautiful Zion National Park. I'm going to let the pictures (all taken by TLR) speak for themselves. Click any picture to enbiggen.

 This bench, which TLR called the "pi bench," led to a conversation in which PG and I tried to decide which
 Greek letters would make the best benches. Some letters were more easily judged than others. Capital delta, for
 example (∆), would not make for a particularly comfortable bench. Lowercase delta, on the other hand (∂),
 might make for a nice sort of rocker, depending on how you sat on it.

 While we considered such matters, TLR had the sense to ignore us and keep taking pictures.


 Can you spot the rainbow?

How can the landscape be so dramatically different from what we'd seen in Wyoming, yet still be so beautiful? We spotted the rainbow on the way out of the park; it seemed impossible to me that any place could be more beautiful.

Which is the innocent sort of thought a person might have when she hasn't been to Zion's neighbor park, Bryce Canyon, yet.

 Bryce Canyon National Park

 Can you get a sense of the vastness, of how far it extends?

 In case you've been doubting that this is planet Earth, here's a picture of a humanoid as evidence. (Don't be deceived
by my T-shirt. No one on Tatooine actually wears R2-D2 T-shirts.)

Bryce Canyon was the last stop on our trip. We drove ourselves back to Salt Lake City, then flew home. If you're aware of the size of the states of Wyoming and Utah, you'll have gathered that we covered a lot of miles on this trip. 1,900 miles, in fact (~3,000 km)! In case you don't know, most USA national parks charge some sort of nominal fee for entrance, and if you plan to visit several national parks in one year, it's wise to purchase the highly economical annual pass.

What a wonderful trip it was; I'm a bit sad to wrap up this photo essay. I'll end with a thank you to TLR for taking such beautiful pictures and for allowing me to post them here. You know, during the Wyoming portion of our trip, we were in grizzly bear country. I have what I believe is quite a rational terror of grizzly bears -- and in fact, someone had been killed there by a grizzly bear quite recently -- so TLR and I made sure to implement a Bear Plan whenever we went hiking. Bears don't like to be startled; also, if you do encounter a bear, you're supposed to back away slowly with your eyes on the ground while speaking in a soothing tone of voice. (NEVER RUN!) Our Bear Plan involved keeping up a steady conversation as we hiked, with an occasional "Wokka wokka!" thrown in (so that if a bear did hear us, it would know we were friendly to bears). Were we to encounter a bear, the plan was that while backing away slowly with our eyes to the ground, I would recite T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," with suggestive modifications. Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a bear etherised upon a table.

Fortunately, this is the only bear we encountered.

TLR strikes a pensive pose.

Thanks to my traveling companions. And I hope you've all enjoyed the pictures from our trip. :o)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What I've Been Reading (and some music TV)

Okay, this is an even more random edition of What I've Been Reading (and Watching) than usual -- I hope some of it speaks to some of you out there! 

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges (2006, 2nd revised edition), by Loren Pope. The college application thing is such a rat race, isn't it? So stressful, so depressing, so many assumptions about what's best (name-brand schools), so many messed-up notions about how to decide who is and isn't "smart." When I was choosing a college, I bought into all of that completely. I thought it was all about rankings and scores. I think differently now. And yeah, I'm happy with the path I took, not that it matters, because I wasn't really in a place then to take any other kind of path. But if I had to go to college now, knowing all I've learned, I might choose one of the colleges in this refreshing book I've been reading, called Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges (2006, 2nd revised edition). It's by Loren Pope, who, according to the book cover, is also the author of a book called Looking Beyond the Ivy League.

High schoolers, if you're stressed out about all this crappy crap, you might want to pick up this book. Please note that the tone can be old-fashioned, some of the reports of complete collegiate bliss make me suspicious, and I have the occasional quibble with the author. For example: "Agnes Scott is one of the best colleges around. It is a women's college that has all the advantages of a coed one, and, the women there say, a lot more besides. First, there are thousands of attentive young men at seven heavily male institutions nearby, eager for dates." ...SRSLY? This is the very first thing to be said about this stellar institution?

But that's not the point. Reading about colleges that approach admissions, education, and/or grading a little bit differently from the norm but are still extremely challenging, still passionate about learning, and still produce all those quantifiable results everyone is crazy about -- it might just help you break out of the trap so many of us are/were in when the time comes/came for applying to colleges. Much of this book involves students and alums talking about their experiences in their own words. (By the way, an aside in case you don't know, from someone who does know: a lot of the schools in this book -- and outside this book -- a lot of small, private, expensive schools -- have extremely generous, need-based financial aid. You may actually be able to afford to go to the school you think you can't afford to go to, and without taking on terrible debt. There are probably books out there to help with that jungle, too... I just did a search in my library catalog for college financial aid and came up with a bunch of titles.)

Anyway. After reading a few of the college profiles in this book, I had to stop myself from sending a copy to my sister, codename: Cordelia, to give to my nieces to read. They just turned two. They can't actually read yet. Do you think it's too soon?

(By the way, another book kicking around my house that I haven't had a chance to look at yet but I'm mentioning just in case it's helpful for people to know it exists: Peterson's Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or AD/HD. And I just did another search in my library catalog; college learning disability comes up with a lot of titles.) 

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather. I've tried to read this book so many times in the past, and was never able to get into it. Now I'm realizing I was just trying on the wrong days, or something. It's SUCH a wonderful book -- quiet, not a lot of plot, but a lot of substance and character stuff. I'm allergic to plot summary... it's about an archbishop in the American West in days of yore. He dies. ^_^ But! The imagery!  "At one moment the whole flock of doves caught the light in such a way that they all became invisible at once, dissolved in light and disappeared as salt dissolves in water. The next moment they flashed around black and silver against the sun." This book contained so many moments like that. 

Toning the Sweep, by Angela Johnson. This is a tiny little book, Johnson's first novel, leaves you with impressions of the desert, light, heat, color, family, memory, grief, and healing. Read it. 

Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. This is a graphic novel about a high school girl in Canada going through some pretty normal life stuff, especially loneliness. Understated, and I just loved it. Take it out of your library or take a peek at it the next time you're in a bookstore; see if it appeals to you. Or, if you want to know more about the themes or whatever, go to goodreads and see what people are saying. 

There Devil, Eat That, by JonArno Lawson. I've blogged about Lawson's poetry before. It is a quiet delight. JonArno has given me permission to share a couple that spoke to me particularly -- because it's so much easier to show you the poems than to try to explain what they're like!

From a section called "Travels":

305 Rue Marie-Anne est
(or How my past self tried, unsuccessfully, to disown me)

I know more about him than he thought I'd know.
Looking back, he didn't know much.
He couldn't guess well --
Certainly he didn't know that I'd come someday

Straight to where he hid in the past
Not to disown him
As he disowned me,
But to gather him back.

And one more:

Here Comes the Wind

Here comes the wind
to push your goat over the side of a mountain
to sadden a wall
to darken the sky
to rattle a little tin can --
It comes to toss a tired bird beyond reach of the shore --
here comes the wind
oh friend of the wind
to rid me of your ashes.


Now, we should all feel free to look beyond the Ivies, but HAVING SAID THAT, I would like to point out that there is a young man who sings in Dartmouth's all-male a cappella group, the Dartmouth Aires, who, as far as I can tell, was born to be a big Broadway star. His name is Michael Odokara-Okigbe, and while the entire group is talented and fun and energetic and funny, I think Odokara-Okigbe is the biggest reason the Aires have made it all the way to the upcoming finale of NBC's slightly quirky a cappella reality competition show, The Sing-Off (link opens a video with sound). Judge Shawn Stockman (of Boys II Men) said to him once, "What were you thinking of doing outside of singing?"

This video will give you a sense of his voice and presence. (Sorry about the ads. Props to NBC for posting the vids so we can embed them legally -- but of course with ads, sigh. Wait... suddenly I wonder if this video will work overseas. If it doesn't and you want to search elsewhere, the song is "Shout," the group is the Dartmouth Aires, and the show is The Sing-Off.) (BTW, the music only lasts 3 minutes -- the rest of that space is judging.) (ALSO. Last parenthetical: if you get my posts as emails, you may need to go to my Blog Actual to see the vids.)

And here's a really fun performance of the Aires doing a Queen medley (the music is only about 3:30 long). I think this was the moment when I first thought to myself, Could I please see him on Broadway someday?:

In the meantime, my favorite group on the show is Pentatonix, who do not actually sound like Florence and the Machine, except for when they're singing Florence and the Machine (music lasts 2:45):

(If you love them, here they are again with an adorable version of "Video Killed the Radio Star".)

What I love about really good a cappella is that you can try to deconstruct what's happening while you're watching it -- who's doing what, and how? Sometimes it helps you deconstruct what the original artist does, too. It made me laugh to listen to a group of five vocalists put on the Florence and the Machine sound -- I think I would've recognized it as F+tM even if I hadn't known it was her song! Anyway. The finale is Monday on NBC; I'm guessing some pretty good music is guaranteed.

Monday, November 21, 2011

O Beautiful for Spacious Skies

Now that the days are growing short and it feels like it's night most of the time, I love more than ever to look at the pictures from my recent(ish) trip out west.

All these pictures were taken by my dear friend and excellent photographer, codename: The Lovely R. Click any photo to enbiggen.

Suuuuure okay no problem.

The Flaming Gorge (northern Utah, southern Wyoming) was so utterly silent that when I stepped
out of the car, I thought something was wrong with my ears. Our footsteps sounded SO LOUD.

So, TLR and I live on opposite coasts of the country and don't get to see enough of each other. We planned this vacation kind of haphazardly. About a year ago, we basically opened our calendars, stuck a pin randomly into the last week of September 2011, and promised each other that we'd get together then. About five months ago, TLR sent me an e-mail saying that her favorite airline was having a special deal on fares to a list of cities, did any of the cities appeal to me? I was like, "Gah, I don't know, I've never been to Salt Lake City, how about there? I can get us a rental car with my airline miles." We agreed: Salt Lake City, last week of September. Then, literally a week before our trip, I was like, "Huh, I wonder where Salt Lake City is, exactly. Here, I'll look at a map. Hey, TLR, did you realize that Salt Lake City is driving distance from Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone?"

In other words, it was some really random, last-minute planning and a whole lot of luck that landed us in one of the most beautiful parts of the country during just about the most beautiful time to be there -- the height of leaf-turning season. I won't speak for TLR, but I can attest that I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of the beauty. Honest to God, it was overwhelming.

The colors in Grand Teton National Park

I'm being as selective as I can with these pictures, and it hurts to leave so many out.

Love TLR's framing here.

Can you even believe the size of those peaks.

Grand Teton National Park is in western Wyoming. A bit north of Grand Teton is Yellowstone National Park, which encompasses an ENORMOUS stretch of land in northwest Wyoming and also a little bit of Montana and Idaho. The pictures I'm going to show you are the barest fraction of the range of natural landscapes we saw at Yellowstone. I'm trying to keep this post from getting out of hand, but it's almost insulting to these parks to show so little!

In Yellowstone, we saw a lot of what you might call classic, normal, natural gorgeousness.

 Hiking down to the bottom...

... of this waterfall.
 Here's how it looks from far away.

We saw elk.

We saw antelope, a wolf, and many many bison.

And cliffs, water, rock, rolling hills, trees, mountains.

Beautiful. And like I said, pretty normal, right? But Yellowstone actually sits on top of one of the world's largest active volcanoes, and in various parts of the park, the landscape is SO BIZARRE.

 See that steam venting out of the ground?

All kinds of weird things are surfacing from the inner depths of Yellowstone National Park.

 Hi, I'm just an innocent rock, and an innocent pool of water.
No really, I'm not boiling or anything. *flutters eyelashes innocently*.

 Double double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Gloopy glops in blobby bogs.
 Nearby, Old Faithful geyser blows off some serious steam.

It's hard to believe that some of these colors happen naturally. Like, just sitting there on the ground.

After Yellowstone, we wound our way back down to Salt Lake City, through beautiful Idaho. The gentleness of the landscape was almost a relief to my eyes; like I said before, the dramatic gorgeousness in Wyoming was almost overwhelming. We could see the far distant Tetons from the other side (the western side) as we drove south through Idaho. Beautiful.

Back in Salt Lake City, we visited the Great Salt Lake.

And then, what did we do? Did we get back on the plane? Hell no! Because you know what else is driving distance from Salt Lake City? Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, both in southern Utah.

But I'm already worried about how much I'm monopolizing your blog readers, so I'll save that for next Monday. On Thursday, I hope to have time for a post about what I've been reading lately -- including a book about choosing the right college for some of the stressed out high school students (and parents)  out there.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Whinge and a Trailer

Dear Gmail,

I like ya lots. HOWEVER. I switched to your "new look" about a week ago, because, as you intend to force this new look on all your users soon, I wanted to see what I was in for. Want to know how it's been for me? Well, let's see, I can no longer figure out what any of the command buttons mean, because you've turned them into obscure symbols instead of words. When I send an e-mail, the sent mail displays on my screen with its top cut off, which is sloppy, weird, and requires me to scroll with my sore arms if I want to see the whole thing. Worst of all, when I open a conversation, I can't see readily where one e-mail starts and the next begins -- a serious problem, because it means I risk missing e-mails altogether if I'm reading fast.

How can anyone possibly consider this an improvement? Please, PLEASE, don't force your new look on us, or I will be forced to leave, and then you'll no longer be able to show me hilariously irrelevant ads based on what you think my e-mails are about, like "Find Out If Your Husband Is Cheating" and "Couples Counseling" and "Singles in Your Area" websites because I've been e-mailing a friend about a fight that my characters, all of whom are, please note, imaginary people, are having. You wouldn't want that, now would you? I know I wouldn't. Please, please Gmail, don't take away my fun.

Sincerely, Kristin


In other, much more pleasant news... I am hardly ever excited about new movies, but this one excites me. Here's a trailer for Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, coming in March:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Something Racist Stuck in our Teeth

If you've got 12 minutes today, consider watching Jay Smooth's TEDx Talk, called "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Discussing Race," presented at Hampshire College (yay Hampshire! My sister, codename: Apocalyptica the Flimflammer, went there). Transcript and related links coming soon to Jay Smooth's website.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I Don't Want to Be Anything Other Than What I've Been Trying to Be Lately

(My title = words I like from singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw. The song is called "I Don't Want to Be" [link opens to the Wikipedia page; it doesn't play the song].)

I never got around to cleaning that closet this weekend. That's all right, I'll get to it sometime this week -- and I did make the time to go to Mount Auburn Cemetery, climb the tower, and take a look at the fall leaves. I love to see the world from high up, because it alters my perspective; it gives me some distance from my own tiny life and makes me feel more connected to all my people who are far away.

It was busy at the top of the tower; a lot of people were leaf-peeping. I probably heard four or five different languages. That's pretty normal for Cambridge, what with the world-renowned universities, but I wondered if some of the people were tourists, coming to see New England's leaves. I sat up there for some time while people came and went. I wouldn't say that I reached a place of peace, exactly, but I did come to the realization that, well, I don't want to be anything other than what I've been trying to be lately. I think "trying" is the most important word in that lyric.

Mount Auburn Cemetery is one of those cemeteries chock full of famous dead people, and every once in a while, I accidentally manage to find the grave of my favorite of the bunch, Winslow Homer. I stumbled across it this time. People always leave stones and shells on his grave, the shells, I suppose, because he painted so many seascapes, and lived much of his life on the coast of Maine. People bringing him shells makes me happy. If you don't know Homer's work, one of the things he was fabulous at was light. The image below, which I got from Wikipedia Commons, is, as far as I can tell, in the public domain, which means I can post it here. "Gloucester Harbor," oil on canvas, Winslow Homer, 1873, courtesy of the Atkins Museum Of Art:

Local people, if you want to see the leaves from the top of the cemetery tower, go soon, because they're already just past their peak. You can get a map at the visitor center, but I usually just enter at the main gate on Mount Auburn Street, then head for higher ground. It's not very scientific, but I always do spot the tower eventually.


On a completely different topic: Here's Jon Stewart reacting to the rioting by Penn State students when head football coach Joe Paterno was fired in the wake of the recent scandal. Last time I checked, my readers on this blog come from 116 countries and territories, so I'm not going to assume you all know what's been going on at Penn State University. Therefore, trigger warning that this video contains somewhat explicit language about alleged sexual abuse of children by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. By the way -- because I know you're out there, and probably embarrassed by the contemptible behavior of your classmates -- I grew up in Pennsylvania, I know plenty of thoughtful people who went to Penn State -- I just want to give a shout out to all the students who didn't riot, who don't think football is sacred, and who understand why Joe Paterno couldn't continue as head coach.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rainy Day Randutiae

I'd like to return to my Monday/Thursday blogging schedule sometime soon, but at the moment, there's so much life going on, and a lot of good work too, and the time keeps eluding me. Truth is, I'm still recovering from Bitterblue. My house is recovering too; I'm in the midst of a deep clean my house hasn't experienced in way too long. One of the things that got lost during the past year and a half or so when Bitterblue was consuming 12 or 14 hours every day is deep cleaning. Not just dusting the books, but moving them and dusting behind them -- that sort of thing. I love a clean house. This weekend, it's Me v. a Very Large Closet. Wish me luck.

In the meantime, I am slowly compiling my post with pictures from out west. They make me very happy. I hope to share them soon.

Fall also makes me very happy.

My friend JL recently linked me to this New York Times article, "To Feed the Hungry, Keep the Can, Open a Wallet." Food banks and food pantries can buy food more cheaply and efficiently than we can; they know what food they need; and food drives often burden food banks/pantries with donations they can't use. Of course, for many people, a can of food is all they can afford to give -- and food banks/pantries are grateful for that, when it's done thoughtfully. But if you possibly can, consider donating money or time to your local food bank this holiday season, rather than food. Many food banks accept online donations of any amount, and tiny amounts can be a big help. From the website of the Greater Boston Food Bank: "For every one dollar you donate to GBFB, we can provide 2.5 meals for those in need." Poke around, ask people, I bet you can find a big or small organization around you that's working hard to help the many, many hungry people in our communities.